The Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA) will present Maude Schuyler Clay: Portraits of a Place, an exhibition of nearly 100 photographic works by the artist from the early 1980s to the present, including intimate family portraits, still-life images of fruit, haunting landscapes, and glass plate images taken by Clay’s grandfather, Joseph Albert May. Judge May was a photo hobbyist and influence on Clay’s career. The glass plates shown for the first time in an exhibition document the agrarian lifestyle of the 1920’s Mississippi Delta. Portraits of a Place will also feature select images of Clay’s Highway Memorial Series. A fifth generation Mississippian, Clay records local history as a visual archivist, capturing domestic, agricultural, and civic subjects unique to the Mississippi Delta—a section of the state known for an array of cultural traditions.
On view from October 29, 2022, through March 5, 2023, the images are drawn from the artist’s personal collection of her black-and-white and color photographs. The exhibition is organized by MMA guest curator Phoenix Savage, Associate Professor of Art at Tougaloo College and visiting Professor of Art at Brown University and long-time friend of Clay’s. The coordinating curator is Ryan N. Dennis (she/her), MMA Chief Curator and Artistic Director of the Museum’s Center for Art & Public Exchange.
Family portraits are presented in an intimate scale to convey the bond between the artist and her subjects, her husband, children, and pets, in her dual role as a mother and chronicler. In documenting her immediate family, Clay transcends the boundaries of domesticity to record quotidian activities.
Works depicting the social sphere contain poignant historical contexts. Clay lives in Sumner, Mississippi, the site of the infamous trial of the two men accused and subsequently acquitted of the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. The trial was a pivotal case in the Civil Rights Movement. Sepia toned images of Tallahatchie County reveal the hold that history still imparts upon the landscape.
Clay’s photography traces the disappearance of time within our present to inform us of a people, their social placement, and their fading vernacular architecture. Several images from her Highway Memorial series are included marking both loss and memory of life.
Regarding her book Delta Land (1999, University Press of Mississippi), Clay described the collection as “a photographic project which involves the recording and preservation of the Mississippi landscape and its rapidly disappearing indigenous structures: mule barns, field churches, cotton gins, commissaries, crossroads stores, tenant houses, cypress sheds, and railroad stations.”
Fruit Suite, a set of six large-scale images of fruit are from an ongoing body of work in which Clay captures the spontaneity of these objects in relationship to light.
The exhibition features an installation, Erasing Sally Mann, that shares with the audience Clay’s relationship with American photographer Sally Mann dating back to the 1980s. Mann frequently sends personal notes to Clay on the back of her discarded photographs that still carry the odor of processing chemicals. In Erasing Sally Mann, Clay selected to air an image on her clothesline. Harking back on the famous conceptual work of Robert Rauschenberg Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), Clay left the image from Mann on the clothesline for a full year. Clay photo-documented the deterioration of Mann’s photograph. The remnants of the photograph are displayed on a clothesline in the gallery along with Clay’s documented images.
About Maude Schuyler Clay
Maude Schuyler Clay was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1953, and attended the University of Mississippi, the Institution Allende in Mexico, and the Memphis Academy of Arts in Tennessee. She began her photography career in Memphis apprenticing with American photographer William Eggleston, a cousin and widely considered the father of modern color photography. In the 1980s, she moved to New York City and worked as a photography editor for Esquire, Fortune, Vanity Fair, and other publications. Clay served as photography editor for Oxford American magazine from 1998 to 2002.
She resides in her hometown of Sumner, Mississippi, where her family has lived for generations. Winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters photography award on five occasions, Clay has published three books, and her work is in the collections of High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.; Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans; and, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Maude Schuyler Clay: Portraits of a Place will be accompanied by a brochure and a roster of public programs. For more information visit msmuseumart.org.